Abandoned cemeteries task force adopts policy framework
Terry Ann Williams Eddon surveys the scene at Westview Cemetery in Pompano Beach

The task force is racing against the clock to get recommendations to the Legislature by January.

Florida’s Abandoned African American Cemeteries Task Force adopted a three-tier policy framework during a meeting in Tallahassee Friday.

The task force voted to categorize recommendations to the Legislature as either identification, maintenance or education. Specific recommendations for each category will be voted on during subsequent meetings.

The meeting was the task force’s third since it was formed under the purview of the Department of State in June after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 37 into law. Rep. Fentrice Driskell and Sen. Janet Cruz, two Tampa Democrats, sponsored the bill following a Tampa Bay Times investigation that led to the discovery of hundreds of forgotten graves beneath a housing complex in the city.

The Times investigation spurred the discovery of other forgotten historically Black cemeteries across the state.

The 10-member task force is required to submit a report to the legislature by Jan. 1, 2022 recommending a process for identifying forgotten or lost cemeteries and how to preserve and honor them.

“It is so thoughtful and thorough,” Secretary of State Laurel Lee said at the start of the meeting. “And collectively your work is giving us a roadmap for how we can build a sustainable foundation going forward to honor and identify and mark and signify these important sites around our state.”

During the three-hour meeting, the group discussed and reviewed proposed recommendations from previous meetings and identified ways to fine tune them.

One of the biggest topics of discussion was whether to recommend creation of a new state-run cemetery program or fold the responsibilities under the existing Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services. That agency oversees known and licensed cemeteries.

Keenan Knopke is a task force member and president of Curlew Hills Memorial Gardens in Temple Terrace. He recommended folding a new cemetery program into the existing board’s duties.

“In order to create an effort to not confuse people — because right now we’re talking about setting up another state cemetery group — it should, in my mind, be all under the same agency,” he said. “That would make it easier for consumers to know where to go if they have a cemetery question.”

But many opposed. Driskell, who also sits on the task force with Cruz, wanted to create a new group solely focused on the lost Black cemeteries under the Department of State.

“The Department of State is the keeper of Florida’s culture. It’s the Department of State that works with the archaeological network,” Driskell said, via Zoom. “It’s the Department of State that has that unique expertise, I think, that we need to carry out the rest of the task force’s mission.”

Yvette Lewis, a task force member and president of the Hillsborough NAACP added that overburdening an existing agency could lead to the same problems and omissions that allowed many of the cemeteries to be lost to time in the first place. She said understanding how the state got here is important to honor the legacy of the cemeteries and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Another area of concern was refining state statutes governing when developers must address a found cemetery. Currently, if a cemetery is found on a proposed building site, the developer must publicly notice the find for 30 days. During that time, only an “authorized person” can come forward to request exhumation or halt the development. But the definition of authorized person is broad, and limited to people directly connected to the deceased.

Task force members proposing changing that definition to open the category to include community members.

Kathryn O’Donnell Miyar, chief of the Bureau of Archaeological Research and a task force member, said it would be a “minor change” that would have “a significant impact for communities.”

“It clearly allows them to have a voice if they protest or do not want a cemetery to be relocated,” Miyar said.

The task force also discussed who would be responsible for maintaining cemeteries. Lewis said that shouldn’t be a state responsibility.

“A lot of these cemeteries happen because again, stolen, taken, seized, however you want to call it, by the city and the county wrongdoings,” Lewis said. “So hold the city and the county responsible. And make them right this wrong part of history. I just feel like the state should not have to encompass what they did to my people.”

That task force has until the end of the year to finalize its report and could meet up to three more times by then. The next meeting is being scheduled for sometime in November.

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected].


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